A Saudi court sentenced five people to death on Monday for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.
The court ruled that Khashoggi’s killing was not premeditated. The two suspected masterminds closest to the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were cleared of punishable offenses, which naturally led critics of the proceedings to complain of whitewashes and scapegoats.
According to Deputy Attorney General Shalaan Shalaan, the two highest-profile officials accused of involvement in the killing, royal adviser Saud al-Qahtani and intelligence officer Ahmed Alassiri, were cleared because not enough evidence was brought against them. Both lost their jobs after Khashoggi’s death.
A total of 31 people were investigated, 21 arrested, and 11 were put on trial for the killing. In addition to the five death sentences, three modest jail terms totaling 24 years were handed down, while the remaining three were found not guilty. The death sentences were for defendants found guilty of “committing and directly participating in the murder of the victim,” while the jail sentences were for “covering up the crime and violating the law.”
None of the condemned were identified by name and the trial was conducted in secret, with reporters barred from covering the proceedings and only a few diplomats and Khashoggi family members allowed to attend.
The Hill speculated that the five, who will most likely lose their heads if the sentence is not modified, probably include the head of the “hit team” and the “surgeon who was tasked with cutting up the body.” The group sent from Saudi Arabia to meet Khashoggi at the Istanbul consulate reportedly included 15 members altogether.
“There seems to be an effort not to implicate the most significant or senior officials who were once close to the crown prince. The viewpoint in the U.S. and in Europe is that it’s difficult to imagine that a decision of this magnitude would’ve been carried out by junior officials without directive from their seniors,” Eurasia Group research head Ayham Kamel observed to Bloomberg News.
Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The government of Turkey denounced the court ruling, questioning how Khashoggi’s murder could be considered “not premeditated” when Turkish intelligence claims some of the participants were caught on tape talking about how to dispose of his body before he arrived at the consulate.
Khashoggi’s son Jamal, who apparently reconciled with the Saudi government some time ago, appeared to be satisfied with the ruling. “Today the judiciary gave us our right as children of the departed. We affirm our trust in the Saudi judicial system at all levels,” he said on Twitter.
Khashoggi’s fiance Hatice Cengiz took the opposite view, denouncing the decision as “unacceptable” and “unlawful” in a message to the Associated Press.
Other critics included Amnesty International, which called the trial “a whitewash which brings neither justice nor truth,” and U.N. investigator Agnes Callmard, who denounced it as a “mockery.”
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said justice was “trampled on” and the five defendants were sentenced to death to “silence them forever and conceal the truth.”
“The opacity of the procedure and the concealment of evidence does not allow us to get an idea” of why several others were convicted or acquitted. We still expect a full accounting,” RSF said.